Middle-east Arab News Opinion | Asharq Al-awsat

Opinion: Between Minorities and Extremists | ASHARQ AL-AWSAT English Archive 2005 -2017
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A Syrian Christian stands at the entrance to a monastery in Mishtaya. (Louai Beshara/AFP/Getty Images)

The Lebanese capital, Beirut, recently hosted a Conference for the Christians of the Levant, which concluded two days of deliberation with the announcement of the establishment of the Christian Gathering of the Levant.

The parties that supported the conference are clear in their stance. Focusing on the Lebanese delegation at the conference, I noticed that it was used as an opportunity for the Christians of the “March 8 Alliance”—which has direct ties to the Iranian–Syrian axis—to present themselves as the sole legitimate representatives of Lebanese Christians.

I don’t claim to know much about the political backgrounds of the Iraqi and Egyptian Christians who participated in the conference, but the Syrian Christian representatives who attended were supporters of the regime. Indeed, some were members of the current Syrian People’s Assembly (Parliament), which was “elected” during the Damascus regime’s war on its own people against the backdrop of the bombardment of Syria’s cities and villages.

The minorities’ crisis is nothing new in the Levant; it is not even limited to this region. Europe has its own minorities’ crises, which has ethnic, religious and sectarian dimensions. These crises exist from Russia and the former Yugoslavia in the east to Northern Ireland in the West. Asia and Africa also have their share of ethnic, religious and sectarian crises. Even the so-called new world—the Americas and Oceania—are not exempt from this, as we can see in their treatment of the Jews, the racial discrimination against black, native Americans and indigenous peoples of Australia. More recently, one notices the issue of immigration.

Christian emigration from the Levant is also nothing new. The fears of the Christian and non-Christian minorities in these countries have not appeared overnight, and Christians have been emigrating from the Levant for centuries. For example, there were many difficulties–both for Christians and for other groups–during the Crusades.

However, two facts must be mentioned here in order to counteract those peddling the idea of an “alliance of minorities” in an attempt to hijack our feelings and instincts.

The first is that episodes of intolerance by the majority (or majorities) against minorities were fleeting and caused mainly by outside influences and environments. There was no systematic or enduring oppression. Instead, there were fleeting examples of intolerance and religious narrow-mindedness that erupted whenever a region was invaded by foreign parties, shaking its people’s trust in one another and forcing them to isolate themselves in their own communities and alienate others.

The best example of this can be seen in the great level of sectarian openness during the rise of the Islamic state in the early days of the Umayyad, Abbasid and Fatimid caliphates. However, intolerance always escalated during the decline and collapse of these Islamic empires, as was the case during the Mongol invasion, the Crusades, the final days of the Ottoman Empire, the growth of the Zionist movement and, finally, the Iranian expansionist project.

The second fact is that some of the oppression the minorities have been subject to—whether ethnic, religious, or sectarian—has been caused by other minorities, not the majority or majorities. The Copts in Egypt, for instance, welcomed Islam because of their religious conflict with their fellow Christians. Islamic minority sects have committed countless massacres against each other throughout history, and the bilateral relations between the Shi’a Ja’afaris, Ismailis, Alawites, and Druze have never been ideal. There have also been conflicts in northern Iraq between Kurds and the Turkmen (both Sunnis), Kurds and Assyrians and Chaldeans (non-Arab minorities), and between the Arab Sunni rule in Baghdad and the Sunni Kurds.

The purpose of mentioning all this is to say that resolving the minorities’ crises in the region should not be left to extremist and radical figures and movements who practice elimination and exclusion within their own environments.

The Aounist Current (of Lebanese politician Michel Aoun) is allied to the Iranian-supported and-manipulated Shi’ite fundamentalism, and is openly hostile to the Sunni majority. This is a political model that does not need too much explanation, as it effectively draws Lebanese Christians into open hostility with the Sunni community across the world. Under the Aounist Current’s wing, and following a similar approach, we also find the Armenian Dashnak Party [the Armenian Revolution Federation], which is demonstrating its willingness to ally itself to political Shi’ism in Lebanon and the region because it has old scores to settle with Turkey. Dashnak views Ankara as a Sunni authority that can only be confronted with Iranian support.

Outside of the Christian context, the identity of the security and political establishment led by Bashar Al-Assad in Syria has become sectarian despite his regime’s empty slogans. Otherwise, how else can we explain the level of sectarian intolerance exposed by the Syrian revolution after four decades of rule by a regime that pretended to be Arab nationalist, secular and socialist?

Also, how can we explain how this “non-sectarian” regime is being defended by sectarian Shi’ite militias affiliated to Tehran? Why else would this regime hand over its three-decade rule of Lebanon—the haven of minorities—to a religious/military/political organization such as Hezbollah?

Indeed, what did this regime–which yesterday welcomed the Christian Conference in Beirut–do to Christian, Shi’ite and Druze leaders when it controlled Lebanon for three decades? What did it do specifically to Michel Aoun, who while exiled in France, went to Washington to agitate against the same Damascus regime, and claim for himself the title of the “Godfather” of the Congress’s “Syria Accountability Act”?

However, the most important point that deserves our attention concerns the exact relationship between the Damascus regime and the “takfirist fundamentalism” —as described in the Conference’s statement. What was the true relationship between the regime and the likes of Abu Al-Qaaqaa and Fatah Al-Islam Group, as well as other organizations and groups that Damascus has exploited over the years

It is worth exploring the “secret” behind the defeat of the Assad regime’s forces by “Takfirist” groups in Christian areas such as Maaloula and Saddad, particularly since the regime’s forces were able to easily regain these areas following media campaigns highlighting the destruction of churches and crosses.

We must also think seriously about why the Al-Qaeda-affiliated groups have been fighting the “Free Syrian Army”, rather than Assad’s forces, as well as how kidnapped Shi’ites from the town of ‘Azaz were only secured after the area was taken over by “takfirists”. These, of course, are the same “takfirsits” that Hezbollah chief Hassan Nasrallah preferred to fight, rather than confronting Israel.

We must also question why a “takfirist” group—or, at least, that’s what Assad and Hezbollah call them—kidnapped Father Paolo Dall’Oglio, who had been exposing the crimes of the regime in Homs and other areas in Syria.

Last but not least, we must ask: What exactly is the nature of the relationship between Tehran and Al-Qaeda, and other similar organizations?